Deciding Where to Travel in Costa Rica: Region-by-Region Guide
For such a small country, Costa Rica has a lot of very regions with distinct geography, biology, and culture. While you could technically drive from the Pacific coast to the Caribbean Sea in one day, we usually recommend spending at least one or two nights in each place in order to have time to appreciate your surroundings and experience the activities each region has to offer.
That means it can be quite tricky to decide which regions to visit in Costa Rica, especially if you’re on a limited schedule.
Here’s a quick description of some of the main characteristics of each region and the kinds of travelers who especially enjoy them. Note, that this is not an exhaustive list and that most travelers can probably find something to love in each region. However, this is a start.
This popular tourist area is the Costa Rican province that resides north of the Nicoya Peninsula and borders Nicaragua on the Pacific Ocean.
Guanacaste Geography and Weather
The forest that covers most of Guanacaste is called a Tropical Dry Forest and is unique in that it receives the least amount of rain compared to any other region in Costa Rica. The weather is hot and generally dry almost year-round, with the official dry season being between December and April.
Guanacaste is home to the highest number of luxury retreats, hotels, and communities than any other region in Costa Rica. While there are, of course, great options for any price range, tourists looking for all-inclusive resorts will find their home here. This area is also the heart of Costa Rican folklore, where you can find some of the most authentic traditions, like cattle ranches and local cowboys. This peninsula is also home to its very own Blue Zone.
Guanacaste has one of the most well-developed tourism infrastructures, meaning it will be easy to find all kinds of tours, experiences, and activities for everyone, regardless of preference. Tourists seeking luxury and relaxation, adventure-junkies, and laid-back surfers will all enjoy Guanacaste’s coast and volcanoes.
Popular Guanacaste Activities
- Ocean Kayaking, Stand Up Paddle, and other Ocean Sports
- Horseback Riding
- Ocean Fishing
Popular Towns in Guanacaste
- Gulf of Papagayo
- Coco Beach
- Hermosa Beach
- Panama Beach
- Liberia (which has its own international airport)
Popular National Parks and Wildlife Refuges in Guanacaste
- Santa Rosa National Park
- Rincon de la Vieja National Park
- Palo Verde National Park
- Ostional Wildlife Refuge
- Junquillal Bay Wildlife Refuge
- Marino Las Baulas National Park
- Guanacaste National Park
- Barra Honda National Park
Central Pacific Coast
The Central Pacific coast usually encompasses the lower end of the Nicoya Peninsula, down past the Manuel Antonio area, to the beaches around Uvita.
Central Pacific Geography and Weather
The geography here is typical of coastal rainforest. You’ll find lots of lush forest, palm tree covered hills, and brightly colored flowers. The weather here is pretty typical of the rest of the rainforests country, with the dry season between December and April and the rainy green season between May and November.
Central Pacific Culture
Generally speaking, the culture of the Central Pacific region of Costa Rica is very relaxed and both nature and adventure oriented. Some of the most popular beaches in the entire country can be found here and it’s easily accessible. Just about anyone can find something that fits their preferences here, from family vacations to romantic honeymoons to casual lodges.
Popular Central Pacific Activities
- Beach hopping
- Bioluminescence boat rides
- Snorkeling and other Ocean Sports
Popular Towns on the Central Pacific Coast
- Manuel Antonio
- Santa Teresa
Popular National Parks and Wildlife Refuges on the Central Pacific Coast
- Manuel Antonio National Park
- Carara National Park
- Marino Ballena National Park
The Osa Peninsula is the smaller, Southern peninsula in Costa Rica. The two main regions of this area are Drake Bay on the Pacific side and Puerto Jimenez on the inner Golfo Dulce side of the peninsula.
Osa Peninsula Geography and Weather
Osa Peninsula is dominated by the Corcovado National Park, which is a primary rainforest. The trees are tall and the canopy is thick, giving the ground a uniquely spacious feeling. This fascinating sensation is heightened by how thick, dense, and impenetrable the forest looks when viewed from the ocean. It’s hot and humid all year, with the rainy season being primarily between May and November, though showers can occur throughout the year.
Osa Peninsula Culture
The Osa Peninsula is one of the most remote regions of Costa Rica. You either have to fly in, drive the long way through the center of the country, or drive down the Pacific coast and take a boat the rest of the way. Because of this, the Osa Peninsula has maintained a virginal feel and welcomes some of the fewest number of tourists in the country. The vibe here definitely matches. It’s calm, tranquil, and focused on nature. In fact, it is considered an eco-tourism haven.
Popular Activities on the Osa Peninsula
- Whale and dolphin watching boat rides
- Snorkeling and other Ocean Sports
Popular Towns on the Osa Peninsula
- Drake Bay
- Puerto Jiménez
Popular National Parks and Wildlife Refuges on Osa Peninsula
- Corcovado National Park
- Piedras Blancas National Park
- Golfo Dulce Forest Reserve
- Golfito Wildlife Refuge
The Arenal Volcano and La Fortuna region is listed separately from the Northern Central region because it has an amazingly developed tourism infrastructure in a relatively small area, making it a unique part of Costa Rica.
Arenal Volcano Geography and Weather
The area around the Arenal Volcano is fairly flat in that there are not many other mountains. There are plenty of small, rolling hills, which you’ll notice for sure if you decide to drive around Arenal Lake. Speaking of which, Arenal Lake is actually man made, though it is so big and natural-looking that you would probably never notice.
You’ll find an abundance of some of Costa Rica’s favorite animals, like sloths, toucans, monkeys, and butterflies. Typical of tropical rainforests, it can rain at any time in the year, though rain usually doesn’t fall all day. Sometimes you’ll find this area to be a bit cloudy, which makes the Arenal Volcano impossible to see. However, there are more days that are brilliantly sunny and hot, perfect for viewing the volcano and enjoying some of the many activities you can find.
Arenal Volcano Culture
As one of the other most well-developed tourist infrastructures, the La Fortuna area is perfect for all kinds of travelers. Adventure travelers can find water sports, adrenaline sports, and more to get their blood pumping. Relaxation-oriented tourists need not look further than the many incredible natural hot springs options.
Popular Activities around the Arenal Volcano
- Stand Up Paddle and Kayaking
- Hot Springs
- Farm and Culture Tours
Popular Towns around the Arenal Volcano
- La Fortuna
Popular National Parks and Wildlife Refuges near Arenal
- Arenal Volcano National Park
- Juan Castro Blanco National Park
Monteverde is a very small part of Costa Rica, but unique enough to merit its own place on this list. It’s located in the mountains between the Arenal Lake area and the Nicoya Bay.
Monteverde Geography and Weather
The most fascinating natural part of Monteverde is its cloud forest. The temperatures in this area tend to be lower than in most of the rest of the country (so make sure you bring a jacket if you visit Monteverde). As you walk through the forest, you’ll notice wisps of what looks like fog, but is actually clouds trapped below the canopy. The dryer season is between January and May and the months of November and December are known for being windy. The nights can get quite cold, so bring jackets!
People in Monteverde are usually very calm and relaxed. It’s a very small community, which was actually founded by Quakers, so you can imagine how it isn’t a huge party destination. Families, groups of friends, solo travelers, and eco-tourists all love this area immensely.
Popular Activities in Monteverde
Popular Towns in Monteverde
- Santa Elena
Popular National Parks and Wildlife Refuges near Monteverde
- Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve
- Children’s Eternal Rainforest
Northern Central Costa Rica
The Northern Central part of Costa Rica is another that is fairly remote and therefore less crowded than the rest of the country. You’ll find this region resting solidly between the Pacific and Caribbean coasts and just south of the border with Nicaragua.
Northern Central Geography and Weather
We won’t mince words. This region sees quite a bit of rain. However, because of this abundant natural resources, the cloud forest is home to an impressive number of local and migratory birds. Drive or hike through the rolling hills and mountains and you’ll see more flora and fauna than you’ve seen almost anywhere else in the world.
The Celeste River with its astonishing turquoise color is one of the main features of the geography here. It winds through the Tenorio Volcano National Park and cloud forest and can be accessed by trails and even from some hotels and resorts.
Northern Central Culture
As one of the least-developed parts of Costa Rica, tourism-speaking, this region is very calm. People looking for peace and quiet will enjoy this region most. Birdwatchers, hikers, and eco-tourists will find an uncrowded, natural haven.
Popular Activities in the Northern Central Region of Costa Rica
Popular Towns in the Northern Central Region of Costa Rica
Popular National Parks and Wildlife Refuges in the Northern Central Region of Costa Rica
North Caribbean: Tortuguero
Tortuguero is another small region and even smaller community that gets its own place in this article. Located on the Northern Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, this secluded area is far from any large town and reachable exclusively by plane or boat.
Tortuguero Geography and Weather
It can rain year-round in this coastal area, though it almost never rains all day. The clearest months are February, March, September, and October. Most of the time, this region is very hot and humid. The forests are very dense and vibrant with all sorts of animal life, much of which can only be seen at night. The ocean around Tortuguero can be dangerous, however, so this isn’t a good swimming beach. It remains an excellent “walk-along-the-coast” beach where you can often see the paths mother turtles have made to go lay their eggs or even baby turtles hatching, if you’re lucky.
You’ll find the locals in Tortuguero to be a fun-loving, cool bunch of people. Most of the people who live full time in Tortuguero are African-Caribbean and often even speak a language other than Spanish. Considering how there isn’t a single car in the community and the access is difficult enough, the culture here has grown into its own thing, different from the rest of Costa Rica. It’s a fiercely unique region to visit.
Popular Activities in Tortuguero
- Turtle Viewing
- Boat Rides through the Canals
- Night Walks
Popular Town in Tortuguero
Popular National Park near Tortuguero
- Tortuguero National Park
The South Caribbean is the other region on this vibrant coast that is most popular with travelers, both internationally and locally. This region stretches south of Limon, which is the largest city in the province of Limon, all the way to the border with Panama.
South Caribbean Geography and Weather
People consider the weather in the South Caribbean to be completely distinct from the rest of the country. Here there are several months where it rains for hours on end and other months where there’s a good chance you’ll find mostly bright sunny days with just a few showers here and there, but mostly sun (February, March, September, and October). The rainforest here is also thick and relatively untouched and it isn’t uncommon to find sloths in the tall trees.
South Caribbean Culture
The people who live and visit the South Caribbean love to have a good time, to sit back and enjoy the beauty of life, and eat good food while listening to good music. This is one of the places in the world where you can sit on the beach with a cold drink and just appreciate the sights, sounds, and smells of the ocean all day with no judgement. You’ll find almost as many expats as you’ll find African-Caribbean people here, though almost everyone will be laid-back and peace-seeking. There is some strong culture in the communities in the South Caribbean, and even stronger roots.
Popular Activities in the South Caribbean
- Boat Rides
Popular Towns in the South Caribbean
Popular National Parks and Wildlife Refuges in the South Caribbean
The Southern Central region of Costa Rica is vast and usually not very distinctly defined. It contains the Savegre Valley, the Talamanca Mountain Range, the Pacuare River area, and the Dota region.
Southern Highlands Geography and Weather
The Southern Highlands experience its dry season between December and April, while the green season is May to November. This area is marked by lots of medium-sized and tall mountains. It’s even home to the tallest mountain in Costa Rica, Chirripo. Tucked amongst the mountains and hills are green valleys and cool rivers.
Southern Highlands Culture
Most people who travel to or around the Southern Central regions of Costa Rica are looking for nature and adventure. The Savegre Valley is known for outstanding birdwatching. The Talamanca Mountain Range is known for rugged hikes through many different layers of geography. The Pacuare River area is known for secluded resorts accessible only by river raft. The Dota region is known for good high altitude coffee and untouched nature. There are no large towns, but plenty of forests, mountains, and valleys to explore.
Popular Activities in the Southern Highlands
Popular National Parks and Wildlife Refuges in the Southern Highlands
- Chirripo National Park
- Los Quetzales National Park
- Tapanti National Park
Central Valley and San Jose
Finally, we have the Central Valley and the capital city of San Jose, where most travelers dwell briefly on their way in or out of the country. Nestled between a ring of mountains and volcanoes, this region contains the densest population of people and features parts of the provinces of San Jose, Cartago, Heredia, and Alajuela.
Central Valley Geography and Weather
One of the things that makes the Central Valley so cool is that you can see soaring mountains on all sides of the valley, from almost anywhere in the city. The high altitude and cooler temperatures make these mountainsides ideal for coffee plantations and other farming. The weather is very consistent. The rainy season is April-November, where you can expect sunny mornings, rainy middays or afternoons, and sometimes sunny, sometimes overcast afternoons and evenings. The dry season is from December to March and sees little to no rain. The days are hot, though not quite so humid, and the nights are cool, sometimes cold.
Central Valley Culture
Home to most of the big cities of the country, the Central Valley has a busy culture. Most business is conducted here, meaning there are people doing something at almost any hour of the day or night. Recently, the gastronic scene has exploded in San Jose, giving rise to everything from fine-dining restaurants to intimate modern coffee spots.
Popular Activities in the Central Valley
- Historical Walking Tours
- Live Music
- Drives to View Points
Popular Cities in the Central Valley
- San Jose
Popular National Parks and Wildlife Refuges around the Central Valley
- Irazu Volcano National Park
- Poas Volcano National Park
- Turrialba Volcano National Park